On Nonprofits

May 2011


Q:  I am involved with the United Way in my community and there is a recent focus on the board “looking outward.” A friend of mine is on another board and she is hearing that the board needs to spend more time working outside the boardroom. I always thought that as directors our major focus should be on fiduciary oversight. Can you explain why we’re hearing something different all of a sudden?


A: The United Way has long been in the forefront when it comes to introducing good governance practice to a community. What you describe really isn’t so new, but often it takes awhile for proven practices to work their way throughout communities.


Allow me to provide a little history. Back in 2004 Dick Chait, Bill Ryan and Barbara Taylor – all associated with the Hauser Center for Nonprofits at Harvard University – wrote a book entitled, Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of the Nonprofit Boards (John Wiley & Sons)In it they suggested boards have three responsibilities. One obviously is the fiduciary oversight you mention. The other two are strategic and generative thinking.


As you might guess, strategic thinking is looking at issues, plans and decisions with a big picture, future orientation, which I’m sure you would own alongside fiduciary oversight. What the three authors meant by generative thinking was making sense of the various cues from the community, looking at them in relationship to past experiences and reframing them for the anticipated future in order to be able to provide to the organization the most valid direction possible. As most boards are responsible for governance, a look at a definition of governance will make the need for generative behavior clear. My favorite definition comes from a colleague, Steve Bowman out of Australia: Making the choices that will result in the future we desire for the communities we serve. How can any director interpret cues or determine whether he or she is even asking the right questions in order to make effective choices without being out in the community, talking with and listening to stakeholders, as well as seeing for him/herself the state of the community and the current impact (or lack of impact) of the organization on it?


The process of interacting with stakeholders and looking at impact beyond the numbers is what Chait, Ryan and Taylor called “working at the boundary” and Richard Harwood (upon whose work the United Way has modeled its approach) calls “looking outward.” Simply, it builds on the recognition that our directors – each with his or her unique reach into the community – can be extremely valuable if working outside the boardroom, impassioning others, mustering resources, increasing the access to diverse talent and bringing what they learn back to the boardroom to help inform decisions.


There are many techniques for doing this. I’ll share just a few here. One of my favorites is something I’ve mentioned before in this column, the By the Way Talk. This entails setting aside 15 – 20 minutes at each board meeting for directors to share what they’ve learned in their day-to-day interactions since the last time the board convened that might prove an opportunity for – or threat to – the organization and/or its clients. Such reporting opens the door to a cost/benefit analysis of employing early maximization or mitigation methodologies to ensure that the organization remains responsive to community needs.


You might also encourage the directors on your board to meet with colleagues on the boards of other nonprofits, as well as businesses, government offices and educational institutions that share similar or complementary missions. The goal of those meetings is that each would discuss what their organizations are doing, why and with what degree of success in order to gain a better understanding of how best to move forward. You can actually have these and other community leaders contribute their thoughts more fully by inviting them as participants to your planning processes.


Ask that directors build ongoing relationships with media or legislative personnel that share an interest in your organization’s mission. The key here is “ongoing.” The idea is to create true relationships, based on give as well as take that can weather the good and bad times. Offer statistics, quotes and access to expert sources and testimony that will make their work easier and more credible. Expand your network by finding out who else they turn to for trusted information and ask for introductions. The further out you build these relationships the more valuable perspectives you will gain.


Actively employ social media to encourage people in the community to connect with not only your cause but with the directors of your board. At the very least, your board chair should have a blog. Solicit comments. This is a great way to hear how the community feels about what you are doing.


Have directors on the board conduct mission-based tours of your organization for the community (as appropriate) and solicit questions as well as comments. The insights gathered will be very valuable when doing future planning.


Encourage every director to set up Google Alerts related to your mission so that they can keep up with critical issues, developments, statistics and so on in the arena of your mission.


What is exciting about the concept of “working at the boundaries” or “looking out” is that directors are no longer just focused on their own organization or the relatively limited impact it can make on its clients. Rather they become central players in impacting the larger community. They begin to see that they are truly making a difference and they tend to become more engaged in the organization than ever before. It’s a true win for everyone involved.